So much for subtle. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) placed health care at the top of the list of reasons to oppose Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, throwing in some over-the-top rhetoric in the process:
We Democrats believe the No. 1 issue in America is health care and the ability for people to get good health care at prices they can afford. The nomination of Mr. Kavanaugh would put a dagger through the heart of that cherished belief that most Americans have.
Put aside for a moment that Obamacare itself has “put a dagger through the heart” of people’s ability “to get good health care at prices they can afford” by more than doubling individual insurance premiums during President Obama’s second term. The idea that a pending lawsuit would allow the Supreme Court to strike down Obamacare, and that a Justice Kavanaugh would cast the deciding vote to do so, ranges from implausible to ridiculous, for at least three reasons.
First, and most obviously, the five-justice majority that upheld the law’s individual mandate in 2012—Chief Justice John Roberts, and associate justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor—remains on the Supreme Court. Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom Kavanaugh would replace, voted to strike down the mandate, one of four dissenting justices to do so.
Second, as I previously noted, Kavanaugh wrote an opinion in 2011 that, while deferring a definitive judgment on the merits, suggested an inclination to uphold Obamacare’s mandate as constitutional. In one footnote of his opinion, Kavanaugh noted that “the fact that an exaction is not labeled a tax does not vitiate Congress’s [sic] power under the Taxing Clause.” To Kavanaugh, it mattered not that Congress said the mandate was not a tax to justify it as such under the Constitution—the same logic that troubled conservatives about Roberts’ ruling in the mandate case.
Kavanaugh did seem troubled by the fact that Obamacare contains both a statutory requirement to buy coverage and a penalty (“tax”) for those who fail to do so. But another footnote suggested a way out:
At oral argument, counsel for the Government argued that a citizen who refused to obtain health insurance would still be acting lawfully. If that were true, the mandate would presumably pass muster under the Taxing Clause. But it is not evident that the statutory language is fairly susceptible to such an interpretation. That said, perhaps the canon of constitutional avoidance would allow such an interpretation of this provision and thereby squeeze it within the Taxing Clause.
Roberts did exactly what Kavanaugh suggested, eliminating the “perhaps” from Kavanaugh’s last sentence, and defending the mandate as permissible under Congress’ Taxing Clause power.
Third, while the individual mandate presented an inherently novel case of constitutional principles, the current case filed by several state attorneys general revolves around severability arguments, and fairly clear-cut ones at that. When Congress decided last year to set the mandate penalty to zero, it kept the rest of Obamacare intact. A bipartisan group of scholars, who stood on both sides of the Supreme Court case regarding the individual mandate, recently filed an amicus curiae brief in the states’ lawsuit, arguing that Congress left the rest of Obamacare intact, so the courts should follow suit.
Wall Street firms often note that past performance does not equate to future results, a motto worth noting here. But it seems highly unlikely that a judge willing to justify what Congress itself termed a “penalty” as a tax, and who cited the “canon of constitutional avoidance” as a way to uphold Obamacare, would suddenly vote to strike down the entire law—after Congress just last year declined to do so. (In fact, the Supreme Court may not even vote to hear the case at all.) All this makes Schumer’s talk of “dagger[s] through the heart” so much noise.
Schumer’s Strategy Could Be Improved
One could make a compelling argument that, if Schumer really wanted to defeat the Kavanaugh nomination, he would take the opposite tack, and “hug him close” on Obamacare. An exercise in trolling conservatives could cause them some serious discomfort: “We know Judge Kavanaugh would uphold Obamacare at the Supreme Court, because he laid the roadmap for saving Obamacare there six years ago.”
But Schumer has instead tried to play the health care card against Kavanaugh, for any number of potential reasons.
- He worries about over-emphasizing abortion rights during the confirmation process, which could cause political heartburn for several Senate Democrats running for re-election this year in states Donald Trump won in 2016;
- He wants to preview themes Democrats will push in the election campaign this fall;
- He doesn’t want to anger Democrats’ base by conceding the health care issue, as they want him to fight Kavanaugh’s nomination and support Obamacare, even if doing so could improve the chances of defeating the nomination; and/or
- He thinks it unlikely he can defeat Kavanaugh, and wants to keep his caucus united rather than make a long-shot tactical gamble that could divide Democrats.
Regardless of his motivation, Schumer’s over-the-top rhetoric on health care, and its variance with the facts at issue surrounding the Kavanaugh nomination, speaks to the kabuki nature of the debate transpiring in the Senate.